Of Metaphor, Meaning And Cross-Platform/TV Audience Measurement

Often the best way to understand a complicated matter is through the use of metaphor. Over the past 25 years, the marketing, advertising and media industries have seen the transformation of Nielsen Media Research from the “gold standard” of TV audience measurement to the Theranos of cross-platform media measurement. 

Theranos, of course, was an American company touted to possess breakthrough medical technology for blood testing. Alas, their claims were proven to be false, but not before it raised over more than $700 million from venture capitalists and private investors, resulting in a $10 billion peak valuation.

But the analogy continues. Meet Kelly Abcarian, executive vice president-measurement & impact, advertising & partnerships for NBCUniversal.  She is the Elizabeth Anne Holmes of the current media research drama. Holmes was the founder and CEO of Theranos.



Curiously, Abcarian had been general manager of Nielsen’s advanced video advertising group until April, where she led efforts to measure the effectiveness of so-called “addressable” advertising that can be placed depending on a wider array of characteristics than traditional linear ads.  She had also spent time at Nielsen overseeing its portfolio of audience measurement products.

Last Friday, with the help of the Video Advertising Bureau (VAB), Abcarian announced the launch of a “Measurement Innovation Task Force.”  Regrettably, it appears largely designed to serve the financial interests of NBCU.

Enter David Kenny, Nielsen CEO, with an open letter to the industry promising last Thursday to rectify its documented measurement deficiencies by 2024. All it will take is “hundreds of millions of dollars in tech infrastructure, and operations and ad streaming meters….” Just what has Nielsen done with its profits for the past 25 years?

Finally, witness the only honest party in this matter:  The Media Rating Council (MRC). Attempting to finesse its faltering industry standing and quantifiable measurement weaknesses, Nielsen sought a hiatus from its annual MRC/E&Y research quality audit.

However, the MRC saw the face-saving gambit for what it was and withdrew Nielsen accreditation on September 1. Simply stated, in terms of the statistical and measurement sciences, Nielsen data cannot be trusted for any application.

Think of it -- a $75 billion industry without an accurate, reliable and useful scale of measurement. Your next marketing, advertising and media mistake won't be your last… for years.

With all due respect to outspoken media players like David Zaslav, CEO of Discovery Inc., they are clueless and worse. To suggest that the industry can “work (its) way out of it, from a technology perspective and leave (Nielsen) in the dust…” is, in the vernacular, nuts, if not as grossly irresponsible as Nielsen itself.

As NBC's senior vice president, research and elected chairman of CONTAM (Committee On Nationwide Television Audience Measurement) a generation ago, I am well aware that Nielsen is paid handsomely for what it does, and for what it is does not do. What it has failed to comprehend for decades is that stakeholders don't need boasts, excuses or delays.  What they need to see is Nielsen exhibit a commitment to defined procedures and quality control; continuous methodological research, and client communication and engagement.

Recall that the networks even modeled what was sought through the initial underwriting of a successful, industry-funded live measurement lab called SMART* (Systems for Measuring and Reporting Television) in Philadelphia.  What has happened since?  Nielsen: Nothing.  Stakeholders: Nothing.  Measurement worse than ever.

It's not all that complex, no matter what anyone says. Nielsen just has to do the right things. 

And do things right.

[*Full disclosure -- the SMART Laboratory was probably defunded on orders from GE Chairman Jack Welch, who was further feathering his retirement nest with NBC profits and perhaps doing “favors” for “his” friends at Nielsen. Who knew? Once NBC withdrew, other media companies withdrew their support from the independent, world-class, research company, Statistical Research, Inc. that developed and operated the measurement and reporting lab, SMART.]

3 comments about "Of Metaphor, Meaning And Cross-Platform/TV Audience Measurement".
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  1. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, September 16, 2021 at 11:37 a.m.

    Very interesting commentary, Nick, and I agree with much of what you say. As I have pointed out in various vorums, the critical issue regarding "cross platform measurement---meaning "linear TV" plus digital----as nobody cares about radio or print media, it seems-----is how the various datasets are melded together, whether they, individually, are projectable to the claimed universes and what statistical assumptions are involved in the final  reporting process. Add to that the critical issues of getting an indication of viewing for all screens in all locations pluss attentiveness---rather than assuming that it takes place---and you have many problems to overcome.

    I would add that its about time that the users of the data---the agency media planners and buyers as well as their constantly complaining but not paying clients, begin to appreciate that you can't get precision ---or "granular"--- measurements of everything----like second by second commercial viewing or some sort of perfect "attribution" modelling data.  At a certain point, the user must take the responsibility and make a desicion---guided by what data is reasonably available---but based on judgement and situation-specific anaylsis. Nielsen, nor anyone else, can't do the whole job for you..

  2. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, September 16, 2021 at noon

    Actually I make my points on various "forums" not "vorums" and "pluss" is "plus"---but typos aside my typing has improved tremendously since  I began posting about 7-8  years ago.

  3. Jack Wakshlag from Media Strategy, Research & Analytics replied, October 7, 2021 at 4:19 p.m.

    Faulting companies and/or individuals for acting in their self interest is easy to do but not a solution. Abcarian and the VAB are rightfully initiating and representing what is good for their businesses. I don't see anything wrong with that.  Nielsen, likewise, is defending its position. We may disagree with what it proposes, or it's profits, but at the end of the day we get the metrics we agree to do business on.  I don't see other companies fully understanding the entire measurement challenge across platforms better than Nielsen right now. Do you?

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